June 4, 2012

Sci-Fi Issue: "Monstro"

By Junot Díaz
~8500 words

During the outbreak of an unknown disease in Haiti, a student chases after a girl he is unlikely ever to get.

“Monstro” is set on “the Island,” which means Hispaniola, the land mass composed of Haiti and the Dominican Republic—a kind of monstrous creature itself, with two very different cultures joined at the hip. Our time is: the future—but perhaps not very far. It’s true that people now glypt instead of text, the Web is the Whorl, and global warming seems a little more advanced. But there’s just been (another?) economic collapse, and Haiti seems to be the place where, no matter what you do, shit just keeps happening.

Our narrator, a student at Brown, has returned home to the D.R. for the summer to help take care of his ailing mother. Only he doesn’t take care of her, because he’s too busy hanging out (janguiar, a monstrous Spanish word formed from the English) with his pal Alex and the troubled Mysty, into whose shapely pants he would dearly love to get. Alex is wealthy beyond imagination, half prick, half go-getter.

The weird thing is the illness that breaks out. It starts as a “black mold-fungus-blast” that spreads slowly through the population, afflicting only those already weakened or sick. People are quarantined. But gradually it worsens, and those suffering from la Negrura are drawn together by a powerful herding instinct. Health care providers struggle to keep them separate so their bodies don’t actually fuse, like disparate patches of coral growing into one. Worse yet, the patients all begin screaming in unison, wherever they are. And just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, thermal imagining reveals that nearly everyone in Port-au-Prince is affected.

The authorities nuke the place, but our main characters, still in the D.R., hear tell of twenty-foot monsters clambering about, gobbling down bodies. The descriptions read like late Goya paintings. Our trio heads for the border, cameras in hand, hoping to see some of the action.

It’s probably safe to say that the first thing you’ll notice in “Monstro” is the title “Monstro.” You might have noticed that it’s not in English, but it’s probably close enough that you’ll get the gist. And you’ll be pleased with yourself for understanding the Spanish. Only it’s not Spanish. (In Spanish, the word is monstruo.) Already there’s something not quite right. This story is a monster, all right—a thing crawling with both English and Spanish, though even these languages seem to have caught a bug. Victims are viktims. Photos are fotos. Monstruos are monstros.

Díaz knows how to create an engaging character. Our narrator is romantic and self-deprecating. He berates himself for not taking better care of his mother, and he knows he is outclassed by Alex and Mysty. But at least he is genuine and loyal. And Díaz endows him with marvelous language, teeming with hip and colorful expressions. However, the narrator is a little monstrous himself: out of place in the D.R. (his Spanish is lousy, his skin surprisingly dark), pulled between social classes (he’s a scholarship kid at Brown, but hangs with one of the richest young men in the Americas), he is left pining (Mysty will never be his, and he knows it). In short, he’s the one who straddles all the borders, not one thing but many, the linchpin between two worlds—princely and healthy playboys versus the disease of the proletarian.

It’s fine to read “Monstro” as a mini sci-fi thriller, a kind of puffed up version of zombies in the wilderness. But it’s hard not to hear the allegorical echoes: while the rich party on, the down and out who are afflicted with la Negrura (the Darkness, yes, but more bluntly the Blackness) are issuing their primal scream, they are fusing together, and they are beginning to rise up as a colossus.

As in all the best science fiction, “Monstro” is not really science; nor, in fact, is it really fiction.

Outstanding. Strong (modified 24 December 2012, explanation here).

Reader poll: I found "Monstro" to be ___.

Also from the sci-fi issue: "Black Box," "My Internet," "The Republic of Empathy."

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